SALACIOUS STORIES of an affair between Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin, and revelations by those who fell foul of the ex-PM’s notoriously bellicose Chief of Staff, may titillate; even so, they are inconsequential to the ongoing government beyond underlining why it exists, and merely reinforce reasons Abbott was dumped in September. Niki Savva’s book on these matters is essentially a shit sandwich served to key protagonists that changes nothing.
I’m not going to dismiss — as Cabinet minister (and Malcolm Turnbull supporter) Christopher Pyne did this morning — the new book by former Howard government staffer and journalist Niki Savva as “a fizzer;” Pyne has a vested interest in the book being as widely ignored as possible, and in any case, to suggest Savva’s tome was exclusively aimed at causing some kind of detonation is grotesque: it is no less worthy an effort than, say, the ABC’s The Killing Season, or more benign examinations of past governments such as The Howard Years.
By the same token, any suggestion it should invite adverse opinion or any kind of backlash against the continuing Turnbull government would be equally perverse; Savva’s work is valid in recording past events and exposing what many of us knew, and which great effort was invested in hiding from public eyes at the time, but its subject has no bearing on the merits or otherwise of the ongoing Coalition government.
And nor should it.
First things first: The Australian and other Murdoch press portals are reporting heavily on the Savva book — provocatively entitled The Road To Ruin: How Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin Destroyed Their Own Government — today, and readers can access some of that coverage here and here; it is also carrying an “exclusive excerpt,” and those with subscriptions to News content may peruse that here.
Perhaps because I had already heard most of the allegations and stories that have surfaced from Savva’s book thus far, I don’t think the press coverage the book is receiving today is particularly surprising.
That said, however, I do see enormous value in the lid being blown off a murky cesspool that a ridiculous degree of energy was committed to ensuring never came to public awareness, for it is many years since Australia has had a government as poorly and erroneously managed as Tony Abbott’s, and it is in the national interest to ensure the situation is not repeated.
Frankly, the suggestion that Abbott and Credlin were having an affair — whether they were or weren’t — is of little interest to me other than to observe that the utter stupidity of an inappropriate relationship between the holder of the most senior elected office in the land and its most powerful public servant would be unprecedented, and to note the deleterious effects such a liaison would have on issues of governance even if the relationship did not, to use the vernacular, go pear-shaped.
And despite having heard conflicting stories privately, arguing both that the duo did have an affair and that they did not, I offer no opinion either way and to be quite blunt, I don’t really care.
What I have in fact cared about was the manner in which Credlin — appointed to the most senior unelected political office in Australia after the 2013 election — seemingly left no stone unturned in a surreal endeavour to fuck it up completely; as we have discussed in this column many times, political and parliamentary strategy and tactics, staffing appointments, government communications, and even policy decisions (among other things) were all matters the micromanaging Credlin wielded tremendous authority and an exclusive veto over, egged on and sanctioned by the Prime Ministerial imprimatur of Abbott.
What I also cared about — and found deeply and profoundly disturbing — was the apparent blindness, to the point of wanton delusion, on Abbott’s part insofar as the damage this influence was causing to the government, to the Liberal Party, and ultimately to the country, as a government elected to fix things not only proved incapable of doing so, but seemed determined through ineptitude and torpor to maximise the effects of its failures to cause as much political and electoral trouble as it could possibly engineer.
In this sense, the stories in Savva’s book — detailing the bullying, abusive, domineering, and vindictive modus operandi of Ms Credlin in her role as an aide to Abbott — pass a clear public interest test irrespective of whether figures like Pyne like it or not.
Governing Australia is not some merry pantomime, or an excuse to sit around singing kum-ba-ya; yet neither is it an excuse to indulge in the worst aspects of human behaviour and untrammelled wanton malevolence.
Yet even the malignant, near-monstrous fashion in which Credlin chose to conduct herself at times — again, with the explicit sanction of her Prime Minister — would justify little criticism had her methods worked, and had the Abbott government proved to be a political and publicly successful enterprise.
Regrettably, it was nothing of the sort: and with the breadth of the remit both handed to Credlin and arrogated to herself, the blame for that rests almost singularly on her amply broad shoulders.
Singularly, that is, except for Abbott himself, who stands condemned for allowing such a disastrous experiment in public administration to ever unfold in the first place.
I have seen some criticism today of Savva; opportunists who think that because she was enthusiastic about the prospect of an Abbott government before it was elected, that her words should be dismissed and her book ignored on the basis she is a hypocrite.
In response, I not only defend Niki in the strongest possible terms, but point out that one of the great tragedies of the Abbott government is that it let down millions of Australians who voted for a mainstream conservative government to enact mainstream conservative solutions to Australia’s problems, and who received a dysfunctional, paranoid and largely useless regime in return whose ideas were misdirected and whose inability to properly communicate what it was doing — or to deal strategically with the assault it faced in the Senate — meant a return to Labor government at this year’s election had become a certainty six months ago.
That, too, is something Abbott and Credlin, and perhaps Credlin’s husband, former federal Liberal Party director Brian Loughnane, can and must be blamed for.
But there are many, many people — Savva is one, and so, as readers know, am I — who were determined to provide Abbott with every possible support, and who gradually turned away in horror; in my own case, I had been a vocal supporter of Abbott for almost 20 years before he won the 2013 election, and that support leached away in increments to the point where I could no longer support him and was insistent he be replaced.
Much of the reason for that emanated from Credlin, but unlike many who seek to crucify the staffer to protect the reputation of the fallen leader, I recognise the monster of Credlin lived only because the master Abbott allowed it to exist at all.
And I supported Abbott in the leadership ballot of September last year only on account of a long-standing opposition to Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal leader — underpinned by grave reservations about his judgement and capacity for the role that are starting to be proven correct — and only after exploring other potential leadership permutations that featured neither Abbott nor Turnbull at all.
It was barely a lukewarm endorsement, and with the insidious Credlin a certain inclusion had he beaten Turnbull, Abbott probably didn’t even deserve that.
So let’s not hear any more of the assertion that Savva’s views are invalid because, in the end, she simply changed her mind. After all, based on the Abbott-Credlin experience, she was given no alternative.
I think it is imperative that the Australian public knows exactly what went on in the corridors of power in Canberra during the two years Abbott was Prime Minister, and in this sense, Savva’s book is not only critically important, but is compelling. I urge all readers to avail themselves of a copy at their earliest opportunity, as I will myself.
The control-and-conflict method of governance deployed by Credlin on Abbott’s say-so is the direct reason Malcolm Turnbull is Prime Minister today, and I do not think it’s unreasonable to assert that the country as a whole is the poorer for having endured the experience.
Turnbull’s government has its problems. That is a matter for another time. But what went on during Abbott’s watch has nothing to do with those, and nobody should hold the continuing government accountable for the misdemeanours of its predecessor.
Savva’s book is a detailed record of a story Abbott, Credlin, and those closest to them never wanted to get out: fended off with outrageous suggestions of “sexism” and “misogyny” and the absurd proposition on Abbott’s part that he couldn’t do his job without Credlin, Australians should know just how poor the best efforts of this duo really were: and if revelations of Credlin spoon-feeding Abbott in an Italian restaurant in Melbourne, or subsequently nuzzling his shoulder and complaining she was tired, are titillating to some people then so be it.
If the odious truth of Credlin’s idea of management is repugnant even to the hardened and the experienced — and she and Abbott are crucified for it — then again, so be it.
But ultimately, this book is a shit sandwich served up to the key protagonists, and if Abbott, Credlin and their acolytes — who failed the trust placed in them, and who nearly destroyed the opportunity provided to the Liberal Party to govern — find little appetite for its contents, then that’s just too bad.